Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mystery of Church

The unfolding of the history of the Church remains a mystery.

This institution/community/herald/sacrament/servant which is charged by Jesus Christ with the responsibility of building the Kingdom of God on earth often seems inept, dysfunctional, and off track.

From the start there were conflicts. Mark's Gospel account records the contest between the sons of Zebedee and the other ten apostles (10:41). James and John wanted preferential treatment when Jesus came into his kingdom and the others took offense at their chutzpah in asking for it.

Paul and Peter got into it over requirements imposed on Gentiles who wanted to join the new way. Paul told the Galatians, "And when Kephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he clearly was wrong" (2:11).

And before the Church was 100 years old the extant letters of Clement, Barnabas and Ignatius were warning believers against false doctrine and practices. Clement was upset about a revolt against the presbyters (elders) in the Church at Corinth. Barnabas advised the Christians to avoid schism and to "pacify and bring together those who are quarreling." Ignatius lamented to the Church at Ephesus that "certain persons from elsewhere, who have evil doctrine, have stayed with you."

Christians in the fourth century were still arguing over whether Jesus was divine. It took a council of bishops at Nicea in 325 AD to settle the matter and declare that Jesus was indeed homousion tō patri (Greek for "one in being," i.e., consubstantial with the Father).

A really big break or schism in the Church occurred  in the 11th century when conflict erupted (not for the first time) between the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople. Politics (the papacy wanted to get out from under the control of the emperor) complicated the scene but in essence the Roman pontiff was declaring himself ruler of the Church and the Christians of the East resented the effort to reduce the authority of the patriarch.

A second really big break occurred in the 16th century --we call it the Protestant Reformation.

And some are suggesting that we may be standing on the cusp of yet another schism, not so much a public denunciation of Roman authority with the formation of a new sect, but a schism of indifference in which Vatican power and control are simply ignored.

Hopes were high in many Church quarters following the Second Vatican Council that there would be greater cooperation between the Vatican and conferences of bishops around the world. Those hopes were soon challenged and deflated. Many thought that the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy) and John Paul II were making a concerted effort to close any windows John XXIII and Vatican II might have opened.

The Vatican's recent rejection of the English translation of the Roman Missal as developed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (a mixed committee of bishops from English speaking countries formed to provide English translations for the liturgy) is a Vatican power-play.

The new translation imposed on most English speaking countries (South Africa seems to have a indult allowing use of the initial ICEL translation which the Vatican first accepted and then rejected) is an example not only of poor English but of reining in the authority of bishops' conferences.

The distorted translation, the disruption of Mass, the decision by many priests to disregard some expressions in the translation and retain the use of others are viral signs undermining unity and peace in the Church.

When those in authority use a too heavy-handed approach those affected by that authority tend to rebel, ignore, challenge, or walk away. It remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome will be.

Catholics who think of the Vatican and the pope as the exclusive authority in the Church will accept the new translation and subsequent efforts to close the window.

Catholics who recognize that bishops, together with the pope, have supreme and full power over the universal Church (cf. Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, #22) will wonder why the bishops' conferences simply gave in to a poor English translation and to the rejection of their authority.

It is doubtful that the Roman Curia and its departments serving the pope underwent the reorganization and modernization that the bishops at Vatican II called for (cf. Christus Dominus, #9).

Conflict, dissent, power plays have been part of the Church's history from the beginning. It is difficult to appreciate how this ongoing dysfunction would be allowed by the Lord who sent it into the world to build the Kingdom of God.

The mystery of God's will (and patience) tests our faith, but in faith we hold to the conviction that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church through and in spite of our human foibles.

The mystery of it all remains intact.

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